ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 140

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Netanyahu: A drastic step; most settlers are law abiding

With unprecedented executive order, US sanctions settlers behind ‘intolerable’ violence

First series of financial penalties, travel ban slapped on 4 violent Israeli extremists; move creates tool that could be used to cut off entire settler movement from US financing

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Illustrative: Israeli soldiers stand by as Israeli settlers throw stones at Palestinians during clashes in the town of Huwara in the West Bank on October 13, 2022. (Oren Ziv/AFP)
Illustrative: Israeli soldiers stand by as Israeli settlers throw stones at Palestinians during clashes in the town of Huwara in the West Bank on October 13, 2022. (Oren Ziv/AFP)

US President Joe Biden signed an executive order on Thursday declaring a national emergency that allows him to implement new measures to combat settler violence, including sanctions concurrently announced against four Israeli extremists who carried out acts of violence in the West Bank.

The action is the furthest that any administration has taken to address the phenomenon, which has persisted despite repeated US warnings for Israel to address it, including after a series of first-of-their-kind visa restrictions were announced in December. The announcement also comes amid growing heat Biden has been feeling from progressive Democrats over his continued support for Israel in the war against Hamas and his opposition to a permanent ceasefire.

“The situation in the West Bank — in particular high levels of extremist settler violence, forced displacement of people and villages, and property destruction — has reached intolerable levels and constitutes a serious threat to the peace, security and stability,” Biden said in the order.

Reacting to the move, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said in a statement that “the vast majority of residents of Judea and Samaria are law-abiding citizens, many of whom are fighting right now in active and reserve duty to protect Israel.”

“Israel acts against all violators of the law in all places,” the PMO statement continued, “and therefore there is no place for drastic steps on this matter.”

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich went further, accusing Biden of making common cause with antisemites and legitimizing attacks on Israeli settlers.

File: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, speaks with Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich during the weekly cabinet meeting at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, January 7, 2024. (Ronen Zvulun/Pool via AP)

“The ‘settler violence’ campaign is an antisemitic lie that enemies of Israel disseminate with the goal of smearing the pioneering settlers and settlement enterprise and to harm them and thus smear the entire State of Israel,” Smotrich said.

“This is an immoral BDS campaign that turns victims into attackers and sanctions the spilling of settler blood. It’s too bad the Biden administration is cooperating with these actions,” he added.

There has been substantial documentation and reporting on rising settler violence in recent months following Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel, and Shin Bet chief Ronen Bar reportedly warned the cabinet of the repercussions in late October.

The attacks have often targeted property but have included stone-throwings at passing cars, assaults and even alleged killings, with the vast majority of cases going unprosecuted, according to rights groups.

Finance Minister Smotrich: “This is an immoral BDS campaign that turns victims into attackers and sanctions the spilling of settler blood. It’s too bad the Biden administration is cooperating with these actions.”

Israeli officials told The Times of Israel last month that the security echelon had taken a number of steps to clamp down on the phenomenon amid repeated US warnings and that there has been a decrease in such incidents in the West Bank

US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said in a statement Thursday issued in tandem with the notification of the measure that Biden sent to Congress: “This executive order will allow the United States to issue financial sanctions against those directing or participating in certain actions, including acts or threats of violence against civilians, intimidating civilians to cause them to leave their homes, destroying or seizing property or engaging in terrorist activity in the West Bank.”

The sanctions will block designated individuals from access to the US financial system, blocking them from any type of property in the US and freezing any property that they might already own. The sanctions will also include a ban on entry to the US.

David Chai Chasdai appears at a hearing at the Rishon Lezion Magistrate’s Court on July 2, 2013. (Yossi Zeliger/FLASH90)

The US State Department said in a statement that the four individuals being designated in the first round are David Chai Chasdai, who allegedly initiated and led the rampage of the northern West Bank village of Huwara last year, which resulted in the death of one of the Palestinian residents; Eitan Tanjil, who was allegedly involved in assaulting Palestinian farmers and Israeli activists by attacking them with stones and clubs, resulting in injuries that required medical treatment; Shalom Zicherman, who allegedly assaulted Israeli activists and their vehicles in the West Bank, blocking them on the street, and attempted to break the windows of passing vehicles with activists inside; and Yinon Levi, who allegedly regularly led groups of settlers from the Meitarim Farm outpost who assaulted Palestinian and Bedouin civilians, threatening them with additional violence if they did not leave their homes, burned their fields, and destroyed their property.

Multiple forms of corroborating evidence are required in order for an individual to be sanctioned, and they can include public reporting, court documents and intelligence, said a senior US official briefing reporters ahead of Thursday’s announcement, adding that the executive order can be used to sanction both Israelis and Palestinians responsible for West Bank violence.

The executive order follows visa restrictions that were announced in December by the US State Department against violent extremists in the West Bank. However, those sanctions did not include a financial component. The number of individuals designated and the identities of those individuals were also kept private.

A month before the visa restrictions were announced, Jake Sullivan issued a cabinet memo directing departments and agencies to develop policy options for further action against those responsible for West Bank violence, the senior US official said.

The senior administration official noted that settler violence “also obstruct[s] the ultimate realization of an independent Palestinian state, existing side by side of the State of Israel.”

The phenomenon has done significant damage to the Palestinian Authority, which is seen in the eyes of many Palestinians as incapable of protecting them, even in areas that are supposed to be under Ramallah’s control. Hampering the PA’s legitimacy makes advancing a two-state solution more difficult to obtain, analysts explain.

Referring to the Thursday announcement, the official said, “This is an important step to directly address the threats to US national security and regional security arising from extremist violence in the West Bank and underscores the extent to which the administration takes this threat seriously.”

Speaking to implications of the decision, S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace managing director Joel Braunold said that Biden has “built a tool that can cut off the entire settler movement from US financial services.”

“The actions covered in the order include property destruction, seizure or dispossession by private actors alongside acts of violence, but it also covers government entities who have been deemed to have participated in these actions,” Braunold said, referring to settlement municipalities.

US President Joe Biden, left, meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, to discuss the war between Israel and Hamas, in Tel Aviv, Israel, on October 18, 2023. (Miriam Alster/Pool Photo via AP)

Biden “hasn’t pulled the trigger with this order, but he has built the system to cut off anyone deemed a threat to the peace, security and stability of the West Bank,” Braunold continued. “The administration is starting with a scalpel; but when people ask where is the leverage that the president has, the Biden administration has just created it.”

Thursday’s order does not cover American citizens, who make up an outsized portion of Israeli settlers. The Democratic chairman of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee Ben Cardin asked the White House to take action against this subset involved in violence against Palestinians.

The senior US official said reports that the administration had considered issuing sanctions against far-right Israeli ministers Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir were “just wrong” and added that Washington had informed Jerusalem in advance regarding Thursday’s announcement.

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